Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Treacherous crossings

There's a tradition of switching sides in politics.
The trick is not to switch to the wrong side

Toward the end of what is probably John LeCarre's finest espionage novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Jim Haydon, a Soviet mole at the pinnacle of British counter-intelligence, justifies his betrayal of Queen and Country to George Smiley ­ the spymaster who exposed Haydon ­ by blaming London's relationship with Washington.

Writes LeCarre: "He hated America, very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did."

"'It's an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,' he explained, looking up. 'Partly a moral one, of course.'

'Of course,' said Smiley politely."

THIS SCENE came to mind after Moscow announced that George Koval, who died last year at 92, was on November 2 posthumously awarded the title of Hero ofthe Russian Federation by President Vladimir Putin ­ -- himself a former spy -- having infiltrated America's Manhattan Project, the secret plan to develop an atomic bomb during WWII and funneling its most precious secrets to Stalin.

Putin's announcement said Koval's work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own," which it exploded in August 1949.

Experts surmise Koval may well have been the most significant Soviet mole in the Manhattan Project.

George Koval's family was active in Jewish communist circles. He was born in Sioux City on Christmas Day, 1913. The family moved to the Soviet Union in 1932 during the Depression to help build a secular Jewish homeland -- Stalin's solution to the Jewish problem ­-- in Birobidjan, Siberia.

A bright boy, George ended up at Moscow's Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology and in 1934 was recruited ­-- not by the KGB, but apparently by the GRU (military intelligence) ­ -- as a deep-cover agent. He was sent back to the United States to conduct scientific espionage.

As Russia's luck would have it, Koval was drafted into America's top-secret nuclear program. He gained extraordinary access to the Manhattan Project largely because he was assigned to health and safety work ("making sure stray radiation did not harm workers").

As The New York Times put it last week, Koval had the perfect cover ­ "born in Iowa, college in Manhattan, army buddies with whom he played baseball."

Alas, there was no George Smiley to unmask this double agent. Instead, US counterintelligence agencies bickered among themselves (just as they did prior to 9/11) while Koval managed to escape back to the USSR.

Add Koval to the embarrassingly long list of Jewish-born spies and agents of influence who betrayed America for the Soviet Union. They did so not necessarily because they hated America, but because they were intoxicated by the messianic ideal of Marxism-Leninism.

WHETHER IN politics, sports, religion or in our private lives, it's hard to think of anything worse than duplicity.

In LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Haydon not only betrays Britain as a Soviet double agent, he also carries on an affair with Smiley's wife, Ann ­ -- a double betrayal.

Still, not every shift in loyalty is necessarily treasonous.

Giving aid and information to the enemy clearly is; so is violating oaths of allegiance or acting clandestinely on behalf an enemy power. Taking money from a foreign power to influence the policies of your own country is, arguably, a form of betrayal.

But abandoning one's political or religious orientation, going from Right toLeft (or vice versa), or from secular to ultra-Orthodox (or vice versa), maybe a "betrayal" of earlier values, it may hurt those close to you ­ but it'sno crime. It's not treason.

People change sides. Sometimes they cite ideology when the motivation may be purely personal (an affront of some sort, perhaps). Sometimes we never know the motivation.

Take Tom Dine, for instance, who once headed the America Israel PublicAffairs Committee (AIPAC), went on to run Radio Free Europe, later took charge of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, and has now gone over to AIPAC's dovish counterpart, the Israel Policy Forum.

There he joins MJ Rosenberg ­ another former AIPAC staffer ­ and, for my money, the single most articulate advocate for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines now engaged in Israel-related polemics.

OF COURSE, AIPAC doesn't need a dovish counterpart because it never was the right-wing bastion its critics claim.

Indeed, AIPAC does not lobby forIsrael ­ it lobbies on behalf of the pro-Israel American community ­-- both liberal and conservative.

It has always sought to balance the desires of this heterogenous constituency while attempting to work in sync with whatever Israeli government happens to be in power ­-- Left, Right or center.

AIPAC never, to my knowledge, supported Jewish sovereignty in Judea, Samaria or Gaza, or the retention of the Territories in perpetuity. That makes AIPAC the quintessential centrist organization.

Nevertheless, the Israel Policy Forum was established in 1993 in the wake of the Oslo Accords and is today a sort of shadow opposition to AIPAC. Like Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and others, the Israel PolicyForum could be accused of being intoxicated by a messianic ideal of its own: Palestine and Israel living side by side in celestial harmony.

The group is led by the esteemed Park Avenue lawyer Seymour Reich, who is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations.

As I understand it, IPF lobbies US decision-makers to pressure Israel into making what IPF sees as concessions to foster peace. They tell House members, senators and White House policymakers that far from there being negative political repercussions to such coercion, American Jews want what amounts to an Israeli pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines (with minor modifications).

Maybe there's truth to that argument.

Most US Jews have never been to Israel, and can't possibly comprehend the strategic implications of the 1949 boundaries. And public opinion is malleable: Ask questions the right way and you can get the desired answers.

There's little doubt that having the IPF's Jewish imprimatur helps Washington politicians and policymakers get tough with Israel.

But let's be fair, with Vice Premier Haim Ramon a featured speaker at the group's Annual Leadership event set for December 3 in New York, no one can legitimately complain that the Israel Policy Forum is working at cross-purposes with the Kadima-led government.

This allows IPF to robustly champion the creation of a Palestinian state today, right now, in the West Bank, as if the Palestinian Arabs were genuinely geared up to live alongside Israel in peace; as if Ben-Gurion Airport could safely operate with sovereign Palestine situated on the adjacent hills; as if even moderate Palestinians had already accepted the existence of a sovereign Jewish state within the 1949 Armistice Lines.

THE FOLKS formerly with AIPAC or the Presidents Conference who have gone over to the IPF have every right to change political course, and even to try and redefine what being pro-Israel is all about.

Let's face it, there would have been no neo-conservative movement had people such as Irving Kristol not abandoned the moral relativism of Leon Trotsky.

Winston Churchill changed parties from Conservative to Liberal, and back again; Ronald Reagan went from the Democratic Party to the GOP.

Yet switching sides ­-- especially in the Jewish context -- ­ is only defensible if your move enhances Jewish continuity and the Zionist enterprise.

In other words, whether it's done transparently out of well-intentioned conviction, or surreptitiously and deceitfully, a la Hayden and Koval, crossing political lines, like everything we do, has consequences.

The consequences of the line the Israel Policy Forum has taken just happensto place the organization largely in harmony with the Palestinian negotiating position going into Annapolis.

And the last time I checked, the Palestinian negotiators weren't looking out for Jewish continuity or the welfare of the Zionist enterprise.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

So, you want to write an op-ed?

Here's what you mustn't do

When you read them for a living, it's natural to form some opinion about what makes a good op-ed. For me, it's clear writing, a focused argument, the introduction of fresh facts, top-notch analysis and a good opener.

Perhaps it's easier to detail the makings of a bad op-ed: long, complex, meandering sentences, plodding prose, pretentious or jargon-heavy language, categorical statements that can't be backed up, or the absence of a clearly enunciated opinion. You'd be surprised how many writers beat around the bush, insinuating, without actually saying outright, what they want readers to believe.

Finally, op-eds that fail to take into account the opposing view, or do so in a cursory, condescending or dismissive way, also get a poor grade.

Former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, now back at the Wall Street Journal, drummed into his staff that an op-ed has to be proleptic - anticipating what the other side would argue, and then knocking down its claims. Such an approach demonstrates that your stance is based upon substantive reflection.

Another no-no: Writers who make use of exclamation points! or CAPITALS. They're like the guy poking his finger in your belly to make a point; all you want to do is create some distance from them.

The same is true of shrill writing that's replete with name-calling, exaggerated (or patently untrue) claims, and the manipulation of statistics. Savvy readers intuitively sense when they're being hoodwinked.

I'M BORED by writers who are completely predictable, who preach to their own amen-corner and whose product is intended primarily as "red meat" for true-believers. Hey, what about the rest of us?

Granted, there's no shortage of folks who keep coming back for what amounts to a slight variation of the same argument, week in and week out. Which means columnists with a purposefully narrow repertoire had better be extra good at what they do.

This isn't to argue that all ideological writing is inherently bad. The views of, say, a Maureen Dowd or a Paul Gigot may be foretold - but they are invariably well-argued, informed and entertaining. Plainly, there are writers who push a coherent, consistent view of politics and people, yet nevertheless manage to deliver columns that are almost always engrossing.

At the end of the day, good op-ed writing is a combination of art and skill; you may be able to deconstruct a piece to explain why it works (or doesn't), but there's no off-the-shelf template for novice writers to follow.

WOULD-BE op-ed contributors need to consider very carefully what they're going to write about. Most of the unsolicited op-eds we receive at The Jerusalem Post fall broadly into two subject categories: the Arab-Israel conflict (and related issues), and the intramural wars of the Jews (over identity, theology, the nature of the Jewish state, and the like).

Thus if everyone is writing about, say, Annapolis, unless you happen to be a world-renowned Mideast expert you should probably find another topic to address. (Assume, too, that our regular columnists won't let this little conference go unmentioned.)

I'm amazed by how many unsolicited submissions we get that simply cover old ground, regurgitate stale arguments, or fight yesterday's ideological battles when the rest of the world has moved on.

Then there are the folks who write about a topic that has no immediacy, neither news nor chronological hook - in fact, nothing to pique the readers' interest.

But don't lose heart. We sometimes reject a piece not because there's anything inherently wrong with it, but because (a) there is no available space; or (b) to maintain the range of our pages. Regular readers know that Post policy is to provide viewpoints from across the political and religious spectrum. And we trust local readers will have noted that their newspaper also publishes op-eds on music, art, science and popular culture - because there is a world out there, and we can't obsess about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, to the exclusion of all else.

EVERY OP-ED writer develops his or her own voice. The question of who's worth reading - and emulating - is largely subjective. Over the years I've found myself drawn to the work of an eclectic bunch of op-ed writers, even though - looking back - I can't honestly claim they meet all the criteria outlined above.

I'm excluding Jerusalem Post columnists and contributors from this discussion for obvious reasons: I don't want to get beaten up in the hallway.

THE FIRST columnist I recall making it my business to read was Pete Hamill. This was when I was in high school and the street-smart Hamill was writing something like three or four columns a week for Dorothy Schiff's New York Post.

I enjoyed Hamill's down-to-earth style. He wrote with a liberal passion that appealed to my adolescent sense of justice. Hamill penned a column in 1970 endorsing Bella Abzug in the Democratic congressional primary on Manhattan's Lower East Side for the US House of Representatives. He argued that Abzug would actively oppose the war in Vietnam, while the incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, was an old fuddy-duddy who wouldn't stand up to Richard Nixon. Because of that column, I went out and volunteered for Abzug's campaign, handing out leaflets on East Broadway near my yeshiva.

Some time later, however, when Hamill wrote a column which - if memory serves me all these decades later - excused the behavior of a punk who mugged his mother on the grounds that the root cause of crime was poverty and discrimination, I abandoned Hamill and never really warmed to him again.

Fortunately, in the natural course of development, adolescent liberals mature into healthy adult centrist pragmatists.

THERE WERE some writers I used to read because they wrote fluidly and I agreed with them. The late Eric Breindel, who was editorial page editor and columnist after Rupert Murdoch took over the New York Post, fell into that category.

Others I read today because they have interesting insights even though I might not agree with them, such as the Paris-based William Pfaff, who publishes in the International Herald Tribune.I'll make time to read Frank Rich of The New York Times even though almost every column takes up most of the op-ed page and is devoted to bashing George W. Bush. Rich is one liberal polemicist who can't be ignored because he marshals his facts so skillfully.

Some writers I read for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their carefully crafted and reported opinion. For instance, Roger Cohen, who writes the "Globalist" column for the Tribune. I always ask myself how a guy so good on other topics can be so wrong about the Palestinian Arabs.

I also read Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, for the same reason I like a good glass of wine, or a fine cigar.

Then there are the op-ed writers I'll keep an eye out for because their work often contains tidbits of information unavailable elsewhere. These include: John K. Cooley (who first caught my attention when he reported on, and championed, the Palestinian cause for the Christian Science Monitor); Robert D. Kaplan, who traverses the world to produce longish op-edy features for, among others, The Atlantic Monthly; and The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland, for his knowledgeable inside-the-beltway reportage on US foreign policy.

In other words, I prefer columnists who research, report and synthesize rather than exclusively pontificate.

Finally, a word about brevity: Do as I say, not as I do. Almost any argument can be effectively made in roughly 750-850 words. If you are just starting out - and especially if you want to reach people under 30 - aim for staccato writing and paragraphs of no more than a few short sentences.

We're several decades into the Internet age, so keep in mind that many of your readers won't be mulling over your words in hard copy while sipping a cup of coffee; they'll be gulping them down in a frenzy of click-and-scroll.One wrong move, and you lose their attention.

REGARDLESS of your intended audience, to achieve an op-ed worth the readers' time, carefully edit what you write. Few writers can produce anything worth reading on the first draft.

One last thing. Publishing your opinion carries with it the danger that you will contribute to your readers' ignorance. To paraphrase the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, some people use a point of view as a substitute for true insight. Don't contribute to their stupidity.

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